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Williamstown Theatre Festival Playwright Explores Theme of Loss
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
06:12AM / Saturday, July 10, 2021
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Rehearsals are conducted earlier this week on the outdoor stage set up on Main Street in Williamstown by the Williamstown Theatre Festival.


Ngozi Anyanwu returns to the Berkshires with a new play as part of WTF's 'Celebrating the Black Radical Imagination: Nine Solo Plays.'
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Ngozi Anyanwu has been part of Berkshire County theater history before, and she returns this month to make some more.
 
In 2005, Anyanwu helped Barrington Stage Company make the transition from South County to the former Berkshire Music Hall in Pittsfield.
 
Sixteen years later, she is helping break in a new stage for the Williamstown Theatre Festival, which this week kicked off its all outdoor 2021 season with a collection called "Celebrating the Black Radical Imagination: Nine Solo Plays."
 
It is the first time Anyanwu has worked in the region since '05, but she has fond memories of the experience.
 
"My first acting job as an undergrad was 'Hair' at Barrington Stage," the Nigerian-born, New York-based artist said this week. "It was great. I came in, last minute. Bill Catellino was the director. There was something about doing 'Hair' that was a very lovely, hippy experience.
 
"The theater company was in transition. This was the first show done at the space in Pittsfield."
 
Earlier that summer, Barrington Stage purchased the Union Street venue now known as the Boyd-Quinson Stage. BSC staged "Hair" both at the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington and in Pittsfield that August before holding its first full season in Pittsfield a year later.
 
An actor in Barrington Stage's revival of the '60s-era musical, Anyanwu is a playwright this time around, one of nine whose works will be performed under a covered outdoor stage on Main Street, in front of Williams College's '62 Center for Theatre and Dance, through July 25.
 
Although the WTF has staged outdoor performances in the past, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Artistic Director Mandy Greenfield to plan an entire outdoor season, starting with the Black Radical Imagination series, which offers three 30-minute world premieres each night.
 
Anyanwu's contribution, "The Last …... (A Work in Progress)," runs July 20-25.
 
Anyanwu won a Humanitas Prize for her play "Good Grief" in 2016 and was a winner of New York Stage and Film's Founders Award in 2017. Currently, her short play "Gluttony" is part of an experimental outdoor theatrical experience, "Seven Deadly Sins," being staged in storefronts in New York City's Meatpacking District.
 
As an actor, she has worked on stage and in front of a camera, including on television shows like "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "The Deuce" on HBO.
 
This week, Anyanwu shared her thoughts about "The Last …...," working during a global pandemic and staging plays in the great outdoors.
 
Question: I saw that you have a show titled 'The Last of the Love Letters' scheduled to premiere in late August at [Chelsea's] Atlantic Theater Company. Is 'The Last ......' related to that?
 
Anyanwu: It's part of it. It's the beginning of that piece.
 
It's pretty common to workshop things and eventually get to full production. For this particular piece, I already have worked on a longer version of it. For this particular season, the Williamstown Theatre Festival came in as friend and longtime collaborator. I sort of took what I was working on and truncated it.
 
I actually started it during the quarantine.
 
Q: I was going to ask about that because I would think, at some level, it could be a very productive period for a writer to have that isolation.
 
Anyanwu: At the very beginning of it, because no one knew what was going to come out of it, I looked at it as not even an artistic time. I looked at it as: I have a break.
 
And that break did not end.
 
The depression set in, and I thought I didn't want to work at all. As a writer, I was getting a lot of offers for meetings, a lot of offers for new projects, and I wasn't taking any of them.
 
Sometimes I'd feel like writing. Sometimes I felt like I never want to do this again in my life. What's the point of any of this?
 
Q: That's the flip side, I guess. For anyone in the industry, it must have been a period of incredible uncertainty now knowing when the work would be there again.
 
Anyanwu: Honestly, even as an actor, I had opportunities to audition. I just was not taking them.
 
For me, it was having the perspective of what's really important. Chasing new jobs at the moment didn't seem important. I was working pretty steadily as a writer. I had the privilege to take my time.
 
Q: So you started this play during that time. Were you working on other projects, too?
 
Anyanwu: It was definitely a period of ups and downs. The 24 Hour Plays is something that is on Broadway and they moved it online. I was approached to do a 24 Hour Play where you basically video each other back and forth and write a piece for an actor over a 24-hour period.
 
I worked with Pedro Pascal ["Game of Thrones"]. … I wrote a two-page piece for him, and that was kind of hitting me early in the moment in the quarantine. I basically came back to that piece every couple of weeks and kept writing it and writing it and writing it.
 
It took me six to seven months to get into this piece.
 
Q: So is 'The Last ……' a preview of 'The Last of the Love Letters' or …?
 
Anyanwu: They are connected, but I'm treating them as two different works. This is shorter and focuses on one person. This piece is more about looking at art as a lost love — what you would have to say to your lost love if art was your lost love.
 
What is it to lose your inspiration? What is it to no longer have your love for something?
 
As a practitioner, sometimes what you do loves you back and sometimes not. This is an artist being tortured by something intangible, which is inspiration.
 
Q: Are you in Williamstown now or will you be coming up to work on 'The Last ……'?
 
Anyanwu: I haven't been on campus because we've been in rehearsal at the moment. I get in on the 12th.
 
Q: Are you performing in 'Seven Deadly Sins?'
 
Anyanwu: I wrote one of the pieces. It's seven different playwrights with their own take on the seven deadly sins.
 
I'm acting in the show at the Atlantic Theater Company in the fall.
 
Q: Have you performed in many of the plays you've written?
 
Anyanwu: It's been pretty half and half. My first play, "Good Grief," which we did in Los Angeles and at the Vineyard off-Broadway, I wrote about myself. "Homecoming Queen" [Atlantic Theater 2018], I wrote but haven't been in.
 
It depends on how far along the piece is and my availability. I don't need to take up that much space.
 
Q: Do you see yourself as a writer who acts or an actor who writes?
 
Anyanwu: I see myself as a maker of stuff. However I can get it made, however I get to feel good about making it. Right now, people will see me as a writer who acts because I'm in demand for that. But all my training is in acting. I went to grad school for acting.
 
I may be paid attention to more as a writer, but I see myself more as someone who says, "How will this get made? If I direct it, will it get made faster yet?"
 
Luckily, I'm at a place where I'm known enough in my small circles that people will say, "Will you be acting in this?" and it's not a passive aggressive question.
 
Q: Do you have any reservations at all about staging a play outdoors?
 
Anyanwu: I don't think there's anything wrong with mixing up how we're trained to do theater — indoor or outdoor.
 
I hope they'll try to do something hybrid. If the weather is nice, why not have something outdoors? I hope it's not a one-time only thing so we're not in this stuffy way we've been doing things. This is how I've always thought theater could be — inside, outside, site specific.
 
There is something beautiful about being indoors and a closed space, but I've always enjoyed other venues. As an undergraduate in Pittsburgh, there was a company that did site-specific work called Quantum Theatre.
 
I think it's important that institutions look to that and take this as an opportunity. Being outdoors doesn't mean we can spend less money. It's not that, it's that we're really trying to get people different experiences.
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